John and his box

My box design was not exactly fancy. The base consisted of a long portion of a refrigerator box, while two other boxes constituted the back. The top piece was positioned so I could shield my face from both the sun and street lights near Chestnut Park after night fell.

“The wheel in the sky keeps on turning …I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”

– Journey, “Wheel in the Sky,” 1978

I remember the first time I heard Steve Perry and his bandmates from the rock group Journey belt out these words.

It was on MTV (back when they played music) and I had just come home from a day of classes at Heath Middle School near Paducah. “Cool song,” I thought, but what is the ‘Wheel in the Sky?’”

It’s amazing how things that are beyond the grasp of a 12 or 13-year-old boy can suddenly become easy to understand as a 51-year-old adult. Because a few weeks ago, I got a full-blown, and most humbling, education about that “Wheel in the Sky.”

It is, of course, a term used to describe how the sun goes from one end of the sky to the other … i.e. it rises in the east and sets in the west. Now, for some of us, we don’t see this as a big deal, especially when we spend most of our days inside an office or building of any type, and are too busy to notice.

But when you spend most of your time outside, it might become quite noticeable. Let’s say you’re hiking in the desert of New Mexico or Arizona and your travels require hiking pretty much all day, then camping at night. Yeah, I’d imagine that wheel becomes hard to ignore, because it basically determines your schedule for the day.

Then, there is what I experienced a few weeks ago on July 24 here in Murray. I was one of the so-called Box Dwellers for the third annual Night on the Town homelessness awareness event at Chestnut Park, which is actually pretty easy, when you get down to the nuts and bolts.

You establish a 100% Grade A cardboard box in whatever design you want, then spend the next several hours learning how to live this way. There are many exercises like this throughout the world every year and they are designed for the same thing, to give you some idea people who now find themselves in such a circumstance experience.

All the while, you know that you’re going home to a safe house, your dogs greeting you and, of course, your family, when the event is over. That’s why, at the start of it, you can be loose and look at it as an adventure. I was proud of my dwelling, a three-piece design that I dubbed “The Lean To,” a tribute to one of the greatest men I’ve ever known, the late Dick Weaver, who used the term to describe, jokingly, one of the proposed designs for what became the magnificent Rotary Club of Murray Amphitheater Performing Arts Pavilion in Central Park.

I received compliments because “The Lean To” was the only one of its kind on the block that day. It was original, just like Dick. And we Box Dwellers had a good time. We visited each other and talked to pass the time. There were even some that resorted to a little donation solicitation by flagging down passing vehicles. That was impressive.

These types of exercises vary in duration. Some are all-night affairs, others last a few hours. Ours was a few hours, but for me, that was all that was needed. It was about 8:30 p.m. that things started happening, only an hour or so from the end.

I remember talking to organizer Jennifer Riley during the first Night on the Town three years earlier and how we had witnessed a group on the court square experience “homelessness.” In their case, it was a quest to toss one of the boxes over a street lamp that they had decided was too bright, as they wanted to sleep. Eventually, they succeeded; it was the biggest memory of that night.

Three years later, for John Tarrant Wright III on a sidewalk at the edge of Chestnut Park, it was something much more simple that created the feeling of “homelessness.” As I said, it started at about 8:30 as the sun was quickly disappearing, allowing all of the lights of buildings, traffic signals and passing vehicles to become more pronounced. That was when I recorded a Facebook Live post that you can still see on my page, and you see someone going through a sudden and very hard-hitting reality. I’m powerless.

What I had started to notice was a phenomenon that I used to think was cool. Day becoming night.

Back when I was younger, my biggest recollection of this was watching college football games at my grandparents’ houses in the Tennessee towns of South Fulton and Ridgely and I noticed the same pattern. The ABC affiliate — WBBJ out of Jackson — always did its station identification at the beginning of the second half, usually of games involving Southeastern Conference teams. Many of the games involved the Alabama teams of Paul “Bear” Bryant and I’d notice how Alabama’s jerseys had gone from a rather bright red color in the afternoon sun to a dark, almost maroon, color by the time WBBJ did its ID once darkness had set in. I thought that was cool.

Later, when I was at Murray State, I had some December final exams in the late afternoon. I knew what was coming, hearkening back to my days as a kid watching football, that during the exam, day would become night. I got fired up. And I had a good track record with exams given at that time frame because I felt a surge of energy that I was playing a game, the same way those players were playing on ABC.

That was gone on July 24. As I watched the sun fade, I became keenly aware of what I was seeing across Chestnut Street. To most people, it’s just representative of everyday life moving into its final stages of each day.

But I started to see activity wind down at some of the businesses. One by one, the lights inside would dim. In some cases, they were turned off altogether. Then, there was the sight that eventually caused me to text my wife, Leigh, with the message “The part about day going to night is really messing with me.”

It was the image of headlights of cars leaving the parking lots, then seeing their red tail lights head off into the distance. “I wonder where they’re going?” I thought to myself and how that answer could range from meeting friends at a restaurant after work to visiting significant others at apartments … to the one that shook me, going home.

It was, at that point, that I put myself in the position of someone, be it in Murray or Paducah or Nashville or Las Vegas, who had no place to call home. I started thinking how brutal it had to be to watch others who are able to go to where they feel safe and, most important, loved. I began thinking how many in this situation would be wandering outside all day, watching the “Wheel in the Sky” keep on turning above them.

Folks, it doesn’t matter how people get to this point! Oh I hear how some people say things like, “Why should I care? They put themselves in this situation!” And maybe that’s true. Maybe some are where they are because of poor decisions.

But others are there because of sheer, simple bad luck. A fire. Theft. Unforeseen job loss. Things that weren’t their fault. But it doesn’t matter how you got there. Homelessness is horrible for everyone. And we, as a society, shouldn’t allow it.

I could give you some of the statistics we promoted during our fundraising campaigns, but that’s not what this is about. It’s the quest to put roofs over people’s heads and give them a fighting chance to turn their lives around that should matter. As I said in my campaign statement, I am a born-again Christian and I am of the belief that we need to try and help those in need. Didn’t Jesus Christ tend to the “undeserving?” Yeah, I thought so!

Thanks to you, I raised a little more than $1,600, the most I’ve ever raised for something like this, and our campaign eclipsed $43,000, the best-ever amount by a big margin. Thanks for your help Murray and Calloway County.

But we’ve got work to do. Homelessness may not be as obvious here. We don’t have box cities under overpasses like I’ve seen in Nashville and we don’t have people using the sidewalks to establish a pillow and blanket under the burning sun of Vegas. But they are here.

And every day, someone is watching those business lights go dark and sees workers drive away to a much better situation. I can’t imagine how painful this is in the winter, when darkness comes before 5 p.m., meaning the night lasts forever. We should look at this and say, ‘No more!”

I want to thank Jennifer and the organizers for this experience, and want them to know that I will do this again if asked. That’s the least I can do.

Because, for the homeless, the Wheel in the Sky does indeed keep turning relentlessly… every day.